As with 1927, there are more than a few films I wish I could have seen from 1928 where they simply were not available – Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York being the big one, but also Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot and Frank Borzage’s Street Angel (making that the second Oscar winning film by the director to not be available on DVD). But, you make do with what you have – and there are some wonderful films in 1928 – which according to Peter Bogdanovich maybe the best year in movie history – because they had perfected silent film by then and sound still hadn’t really ruined the party yet. Anyway, this year runs the gamet from melodramas, to revolutionary films, to slapstick comedy and heartwrenching drama. These 10 films really do deserve praise.
10. Speedy (Ted Wilde)
In my 1927 year in review, I talked about Harold Lloyd the forgotten silent cinema comedic master with his film The Kid Brother. I do think that film is a little better than Speedy – it is less episodic in nature – but Speedy is absolutely hilarious in its own right. Lloyd plays the title character, who through the course of the movie loses his job as a soda jerk, goes to Coney Island with his girl, gets a job as a cab driver, and delivers Babe Ruth to Yankee stadium just in time, and then organizes a group of old timers to fight back against the railroad tries to put the last horse drawn carriage business under. While Lloyd has never quite been the master film comedian than Keaton or Chaplin were, he is still a one of a kind presence, and his work in this movie is hilarious and rather touching.
9. The End of St. Petersburg (V.I. Pudovkin)
Just like Sergei Eisenstein’s October, which we covered in the 1927 year end, this film was commissioned by the Soviet government to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Unlike that film, the government was happy with this one. The film centers on a peasant who unknowing contributes to getting his friend, a labor leader arrested, and then gets arrested himself and ends up fighting for three years in WWI, coming home ready for Revolution. The film is undeniable propaganda for the Russian government, but it is also brilliant as cinema. Taking his lead from Eisenstein, Pudovkin uses visual montage to tell his story, and there are unforgettable sequences throughout the movie. Although I don’t think Pudovkin was as talented as Eisenstein, he was still a wonderful director – and this maybe his best film.
8. The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni)
Directed by German expressionist Paul Leni, The Man Who Laughs feels like a horror film, when real it is a melodrama. Conrad Veidt gives an excellent performance as Victor Hugo’s tragic hero Gwynplaine, who is punished by the King by being forced to undergo surgery that stretches his face into a permanent, horrific grin. The film is expertly directed by Leni, who makes the film haunting and creepy instead of giving into the inherent melodrama in the film. Veidt makes an excellent tragic hero – in love with one woman he thinks himself unworthy of, being ordered to marry another woman he does not like (who is both aroused and repulsed by his appearance), the film, like the better known Hunchback of Notre Dame, really is a masterful story expertly told. I do wish they had kept Hugo’s tragic ending, but then, as now, Hollywood loved a happy ending.
7. The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg)
Emil Jannings gives a powerful, Oscar winning performance as a Tsarist Russian officer, Grand Duke Sergeus Alexander, who driven out of his own country makes a slim living in Hollywood as an extra. An old rival from Russian, now a director, casts him as a Russian general in an attempt to humiliate him. Alexander slowly starts to lose his sanity, and while shooting the climatic battle sequence, completely loses it and thinks that he is really commanding in a battle. The great director Josef von Sternberg gives this melodramatic story some visual wonders, and thematic weight, but it is Jannings towering performance that truly makes it a special film.
6. The Circus (Charles Chaplin)
It says something of the genius of Charles Chaplin that this wonderful comedic film is perhaps my least favorite of all his feature films where he played his trademark Tramp character. Chaplin gives a wonderful performance as the Tramp, who trying to escape from the law, runs into the main tent of a circus, where the audience loves him and thinks he is part of the act. The ringmaster immediately hires him, but soon discovers that Chaplin can only be funny by accident, not on purpose. The movie contains many hilarious sequences, and Chaplin is at his charismatic and comedic best – something all the more impressive considering all the many problems he had while filming the movie. I wouldn’t rank The Circus among Chaplin’s masterpieces, but it is a must for his fans.
5. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Bunuel)
This is the only short film that I will ever include on these lists. The fact that I felt I had to include it on the list at all is a testament as to how important a film this short is, but I did feel I had to leave it lower on the list because of its length. Buneul’s first film, in conjunction with the famous artist Salvador Dali, is a brilliant 16 minute piece of surrealism. Shots of a man with a razor turn into shots of a cloud overtaking the moon, and then the man slicing a woman’s eyeball open. A young man in a Nun’s costume rides his bike and collapses then reappears with a hole in his hand, from which ants emerge. And this is just the beginning. What does it all mean? Probably nothing, as Bunuel himself states that the only rule he and Dali had was that nothing in the movie could lend itself to any explanation whatsoever. That this seemingly meaningless film still haunts and shocks audiences today, over 80 years later, is a testament to its power, and the skill in which it was made.
4. The Cameraman (Buster Keaton & Edward Sedgwick)
The first feature that Keaton made from MGM – and one of the only ones he made there where he had complete creative control – The Cameraman features Keaton at his very best. As with many of Keaton’s films, the plot centers on his various attempts to win the heart of a girl he is in love with. He buys an outdated camera and tries to make his way as a newsreel reporter for MGM, but having no idea what he is doing, his footage is useless. The movie involves a trip to the pool, a gang war, where Keaton is almost killed several times and a thrilling river rescue by Keaton – all the while having a monkey as his sidekick. The Cameraman is absolutely hilarious, features many great set pieces, and has Keaton at his absolute best. One of the best of all of Keaton’s silent comedies.
3. Steamboat Bill Jr. (Buster Keaton & Charles F. Reisler)
Keaton’s last film for United Artists was this wonderful silent film, where Keaton plays a young man straight out college who gets a job as a riverboat Captain, and falls in love with his rival’s daughter. The entire movie is brilliant and hilarious, but it is the cyclone sequence that ends the film which truly marks Steamboat Bill Jr. as one of Keaton’s very best films. Suspended on a wire, doing his own stunts, he was tossed and thrown about the ship is a breathless and daring sequence. Then he follows that up with the most famous stunt of his career – when the façade of a building collapses down on him, with only the fact that he is standing right where the attic window is saving him. Keaton did this stunt himself, and used a real building façade to do it! This is filmmaking at its most daring and risk taking.
2. The Crowd (King Vidor)
The Crowd remains one of the most influential, important and brilliant of all silent dramas. Directed by the great King Vidor, the film centers on an office worker (James Murray) who marries a beautiful woman (Eleanor Boardman), and then the two struggles to make their way in the big city, which is heartless towards their problems and martial stress. The movie is daring in that it cast little known stars, had deeply depressing and dark subject matter, and had an ending that although it seems happy, leaves room for interpretation that in reality this family is still going to struggle. King Vidor is one of those rare silent film directors to go on and have a great career in the sound era as well – but I think that The Crowd remains his masterpiece.
1.The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the greatest of all silent movies. It centers on what may just be the finest performance of the silent era – by largely unknown actress Renee Jeanne Falconetti who is known pretty much only for this film. Dreyer shots Falconetti is excoriating close-up for most of the film, where she plays the famed Joan of Arc on trial for her life. He didn’t allow his actors any make-up, and shot the sequences again and again and again to get what he wanted. The film resembles a passion play, in that it details the arrest, trial, torture and execution of Joan of Arc. Falconetti gives an amazing performance – full of pain and torment as Joan tries to argue her case. The movie is among the most visually distinctive of all silent movies – gives Joan’s captors and questioners a much different look and feel than he does to Joan (they are often shot at low angles, in dark shots, while Joan is seen in close-up in softer light). The effect that the movies weaves in unforgettable and merciless. There are only a handful of silent films that really must be seen by absolutely everyone – The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of them.
Notable Films Missed: L’Argent (Marcel L’Herbier), The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg), Storm Over Asia (Vsevold Pudovkin), The Wedding March (Erich von Stroheim), The Wind (Victor Sjostrom), The Racket (Lewis Milestone), Street Angel (Frank Borzage), The Patriot (Ernst Lubitsch).
Note: The Oscar winners this year are the same listed under the 1927 section - because the 1927/1928 were the first ones ever given out, so somewhere along the way, I had to overlap. It won't happen again, although until 1933, some films may show up on a list in another year. It was 1933 when they decided to switch to a calendar year format. Having said that, what I wrote under the winners here is different.
Oscar Winner – Best Picture: Wings/Sunrise
I covered both of these films in the 1927 article, since they are both 1927 films, but I will let me say again that they are both excellent films – with Sunrise being a true masterpiece. I suppose we cannot blame the Academy for overlooking The Passion of Joan of Arc, as I doubt it was actually released in America in 1928, and considering critics trashed Steamboat Bill Jr., it is also unsurprising that they didn’t nominate that one. They did nominate The Crowd in the same category as Sunrise – Unique and Artistic Production, and I am honestly not sure which masterpiece is better.
Oscar Winner – Best Director: Frank Borzage, Seventh Heaven/Lewis Milestone, Two Arabian Knights
I have not seen either of these films – both are unavailable. They did nominate King Vidor for The Crowd, and considering he never did win an Oscar, I would have chosen him.
Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Emil Jannings, The Way of All Flesh/The Last Command
Modern audiences will never know how good or bad Jannings was in The Way of All Flesh, as it has become one of the many lost films of the silent era. But his towering work in The Last Command really is a brilliant performance, and was a fine first winner of this award, even if I would have given it to Keaton or perhaps John Murray for The Crowd.
Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Janet Gaynor, Seventh Heaven/Sunrise/Street Angel
I already talked about Gaynor’s amazing performance in Sunrise in the 1927 article, and haven’t seen Seventh Heaven or Street Angel. What I will say is that Renne Jeanne Falconetti delivered the greatest silent film performance of all time, and really deserved some recognition.